Rugby: Scotland coach keeps an eye open as battle of the scrum-halves rages on

EVERY year about this time, more or less every player in the Glasgow and Edinburgh ranks insists that they cannot regard the intercity match as their chance to battle their opposite number for a place in the Scotland squad.

Getting distracted by the duel, they reckon, means losing sight of your responsibility to your team. It’s a valid point to an extent, but there are some positions, none the less, which have to be judged as head-to-head battles.

As Scotland coach Andy Robinson watched last night’s match, for instance, you can be sure he took especial interest in the first direct meeting for six years of Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter. It scarcely seemed credible that the two scrum-halves had not been in direct confrontation for so long, and they could hardly believe it themselves when told so last week.

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But it was indeed back in 2005, also on Boxing Day, when the pair met in the match between Edinburgh and the Borders.

For all our weaknesses as a rugby nation, Scotland has long been blessed by a wealth of talent in this pivotal position, and for much of their careers there has been little to choose between Cusiter and Blair. On last night’s form, however, the Glasgow player has a distinct advantage over Blair in most departments of their game.

The most glaring difference was in the breaks made by the two. Blair, once so dangerous in broken play, made just one break, early in the second half.

Cusiter made four, beginning with a good sniping run in the first half as Glasgow came back into the game after going 10-0 down, and continuing deep into the second as they fought back to snatch a draw at the death. The Glasgow player, it seems, still has that eye for an opening – and the minute he spots it he is off, invariably making five or ten yards before the opposition has time to react and get back into position. Blair, if he retains that precious instinct, may no longer have quite the ability to instantly turn insight into action.

In the case of this particular game, it might have been the case that the Glasgow defence was more alive to Blair’s threat than Edinburgh’s was to Cusiter. Even so, it was still the latter player who looked like the one with far more acute rugby vision.

Still only 30, Blair should not be any slower now than he was a few years ago, and if he is a little below top speed at present he should not regard any falling-off from his peak as irreversible.

Even so, right now both physically and mentally he has to concede second best to Cusiter.

Just a year younger than his rival, the Glasgow player is as strong in the tackle as he ever was. Blair may be just as capable of snuffing out an attack when he gets his timing right, but in one crucial instance last night he was left exposed. That was when Glasgow captain Al Kellock took possession from around ten yards out and drove to the line to score virtually unchallenged. Blair got a hand to the second-row forward, but at close quarters could have done better.

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The positive aspect of last night’s showing for the Edinburgh player is that he has a chance to redress the balance in five days. Glasgow supporters may hope he fails, but Robinson, for one, would surely welcome more even competition for the No 9 jersey – and from Rory Lawson and Edinburgh No 10 Greig Laidlaw, who also slugged it out.